August Wilson’s ‘The Piano Lesson’ Theater Review – The Hollywood Reporter

One of the most symphonic works of August Wilson’s ten-play cycle about the black experience in the 20th century, piano lesson Set in Pittsburgh in 1936, the Great Migration was transporting African Americans to an uncertain future in the North, even as the brutal legacy of their Southern past continued to hold its grip on them. That difficult reconciliation with the promise of freedom is represented through a brother and sister at odds over a family heirloom, a piano polished by their late mother’s tears and blood.

The musical instrument at the center of his stand is one of Wilson’s most powerfully loaded symbols, its woodwork adorned with ornate carvings of the siblings’ enslaved ancestors. and Samuel L. in an exciting return to Broadway after an absence of more than a decade. Its history is described here as a mesmerizing invocation of the past by Jackson.

Whether Jackson is explaining a complicated grocery order, Wilson savors every morsel of his brilliant language; Reminiscing about the wonders of rail travel and its reliability in an unreliable world; Or ironing a shirt while singing an old railroad song. His role as Docker – the main living repository of memory for the fractured family in whose home the play unfolds – is thrillingly settled, his every line a balance of weary experience and vigorous wit.

The actor’s association with this extraordinary play extends to its 1987 premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre, where he played Boy Willie, Docker’s impetuous motormouth nephew, with action hinges on him. Jackson’s attachment to this revival is strengthened by the involvement of his wife, Latanya Richardson Jackson, making her Broadway directorial debut. But uneven direction — often literal with text that is too emphatic or rewarded with a more delicate touch — is one of the main flaws of this beautifully assembled production.

For anyone new to Wilson’s play, starring John David Washington as Boy Willie and Danielle Brooks as his sister Bernice, pushing Wilson’s subtle vein of humor into borderline broad comedy at the expense of the play’s melancholy may not be too grating. . But many regular New York theatergoers will struggle to put aside their memories of Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s masterful 2012 Signature Theater production, the most perfect performance this play will ever receive. There was talk of a Broadway transfer at the time, but with no names to win the box office — stage giants Brandon J. Dirden, Roslyn Ruff and Chuck Cooper dominated the good ensemble – that idea never took wing.

The battle between Boy Willie and Bernice, a young widow who lives in her uncle Docker’s house with her teenage daughter, Oblivion (Journey Swan, alternating with Nadia Danielle in matinees), fueled by Willie’s hunger to sell a pricey piano, is unthinkable. To the Bernese.

Boy Willie has flown to Pittsburgh to sell his more stoic friend Lyman (Ray Fisher) and a truckload of watermelons. The proceeds of that sale will be put toward a plot of Mississippi farmland whose owner, Sutter, recently died after falling into a well on the property; His heirs are now looking to sell. Boy Willy figures that selling the piano will give him the final stake in buying the land his ancestors once worked as slaves.

Sutter was just the latest in a run of white natives to die under similarly murky circumstances, all of them responsible for the deaths of Bernie’s and Boy Willie’s father, burned alive in a boxcar with some traveling hobos 25 years earlier. Berniece questions Willie’s innocence in Sutter’s death, questioning his and Lyman’s legal ownership of the truck. Her suspicions are further fueled when she appears at Sutter’s haunted house, which seems to have followed Boy Willie from Mississippi.

There is no doubt about it piano lesson It’s a ghost story, first seen by Sutter Bernese, Maretha and, as it turns out later, Docker, but the ghosts of the Yellow Dog as known to Boxcar victims are often referred to. The spirits of black men believed to be responsible for a series of well accidents.

But Richardson Jackson, starring in a 2009 revival of another Wilson play, Joe Turner Come and Gone, cranks up the supernatural elements to distracting levels in the work of such an elegant playwright. Wilson’s plays work on the power of language that flows through his characters like music, not on extravagant effects. As Toni Morrison once noted, Wilson’s texts are so full-bodied that they function as radio plays; That means they don’t need a lot of bells and whistles.

When – always in a somewhat rushed conclusion – Beowulf Boritt’s impressive set, the skeleton of Docker’s house unfolds and Joffie Wiedemann’s lights flicker eerily as Scott Lehrer’s sound design goes into tremulous overdrive, the intimate focus of the bind between the past and the future embodied by Berniece and Boy Willie is eclipsed.

Part of it is the way the actors are directed. In his Broadway debut, Washington comes full of swagger and bluster, the high-powered energy and big talker the part demands. Maybe it’s the original Boy Willie that intimidates this role, but Washington has nowhere to go from there and the performance lacks modulation.

The same applies to the more experienced stage actress Brooks – she was brilliant Color Purple And in the Shakespeare in the Park update Much ado about nothing. But her stubbornness, don’t mess with me, because Bernie’s could use more variation. She has her moments of beauty, but when she is busy with household chores such as preparing meals or brushing her forgotten hair, she listens carefully to every word of her displaced brother, who caused her husband’s death. Brooks’ best scene is a tender interlude between Berniece and Lyman, who plan to stay in Pittsburgh and yearn for the comforting arms of a woman just like him.

Fisher, another first-time Broadway actor, is terrific as the naive rube that Boy Willie asks of him. He’s funny, never trying to be funny, and his mixture of hope and trepidation about what this new big-city environment holds for him is extremely touching.

In addition to Jackson, the production’s other great living performance is that of Michael Potts, another Wilson veteran, who appeared in the revealing 2017 Broadway revival. Jitney And the movie Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. He brings salty humor and a touch of shameless swagger to Docker’s older brother, Wining Boy, a washed-up musician whose burning memories of the excesses of his piano-playing days, Ghosts of the Yellow Dog and his memories of his one true love are some of the play’s most exquisite arias. And the scene where he offloads a flashy plaid suit onto Lyman (“Women look out their windows and they see you in that kind of suit”), which, while a few sizes too small for the rangy dupe, is comic heaven.

Potts and Samuel L. An important point that Jackson and Fisher grasp — perhaps more naturally for a full cast as they settle into a run and gel into a more unified ensemble — is that the satisfaction of a Wilson play rarely comes from events. depicted or rendered. It is, as they say, an act of remembering.

The fluidity of his storytelling is more imagined in musical lines than in the best productions, passing spontaneously from one character to another. Richardson Jackson’s direction often slips into stand and deliver slogans. But as the melodies flow freely, the majestic music rolls over you, as the past continues to roll over characters struggling to move on, its legacy forever a part of them.

Venue: Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Daniel Brooks, John David Washington, Troy Byers, April Mathis, Journey Swan, Nadia Daniel, Ray Fisher, Michael Potts
Playwright: August Wilson
Director: Latanya Richardson Jackson
Set Designer: Beowulf Boritt
Costume Designer: Tony-Leslie James
Lighting Designer: Jaffe Wiedemann

Music: Alvin Hough Jr.
Sound Designer: Scott Lehrer
Projection Designer: Jeff Sugg
Presented by Brian Anthony Moreland, Sonia Friedman, Tom Kirdahi, Kandi Burruss and Todd Tucker

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